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Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 25, 2016

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31 
1st Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

I've been reading the Oregonian newspaper online for years. For the past few years, they've had a feature article most days, right in the middle of the front page, of lavish homes. Sometimes these are Street of Dreams Homes, sometimes they are mansions of the very wealthy, other times they are the most energy-efficient and greenest of the fanciest, biggest houses. Today you can read about luxurious treehouses on the Columbia river gorge and look at picture after picture of a place you can rent for $400 a night. I admit there have been times when I have been tempted to click, to pour over pictures of wood beams, sun rooms, and swimming pool. This year, however, many of these stories stand next to stories of people struggling with rising rents, or those living along the Springwater Corridor, or those being evicted for no reason. 

Here are two pictures, literally side by side, of the very rich and the very poor. One is easy to look at, to drool over, to admire. The other is difficult to look at, sad, depressing, without any easy solution. I have found myself drawn several times to write a letter to the editor, about this disconnect. Why put up stories so often about something unattainable to most of us? Why dangle this in front of us? It is like junk food, leading us into the temptation to always want more than we have? Where are the stories about happiness or fulfillment in life? I guess they aren't so easy to tell. They probably put those stories up about the homes of the very rich, because people read them, are interested in them. Until we stop clicking on these stories, they will continue to jam up our online newspaper.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also have two stories, two pictures, two lives lived right next to each other, and yet they couldn't be farther apart. We've got the rich man, wearing the finest clothes, eating the finest foods, living in the finest house. 

And we've got Lazarus, with weeping wounds, dying of hunger, laying right outside the rich man's house.

When we read a parable, we are invited to enter it, to put ourselves in the place of the characters. These are two such extremes, the rich man and Lazarus, that we might not be able to see ourselves in either of them. 

Martin Luther's last words on his deathbed were this, “We are beggars. This is true.” Martin Luther could identify with Lazarus. All his life, he saw himself as a sinner, constantly being attacked by the devil. He knew his own shortcomings. At the end of his life he was mostly blind and deaf and very ill. When he said these words, “We are beggards. This is true,” he was away from his family, having suffered a heart attack on the road on the way to the ordination of two pastors, and dying a few days later in the same town where he was born, just a few blocks away from the home he was born in. It must have been even more apparent there, without his family close by, that he had nothing but the grace and love of God. 

We are all beggars. We come into this life with nothing. We take nothing out of it. The things we have in this life are temporary. Our comforts do not last. They do not have lasting meaning or value.

But Martin Luther was not afraid to die, or discouraged in life. He had the only thing that lasted and had meaning and was valuable. He had God's love.

We are Lazarus. We are weak and wounded. Our bodies wear out. We rely on other people for our food and livelihood. We rely on God for our food, clothing, shelter, and healing.

Although many of us are rich, in a lot of ways we are not the rich man. Some of us are rich by our country's standards. We have money, we have a house, sometimes a vacation home. We have a car, sometimes for every driver in the family. We have computers, televisions, furniture, dishes, gadgets. We eat fancy foods with many ingredients. We eat free range eggs, can afford fruits and vegetables, even throw out food because we have too much. We use fancy shampoo, deodorant, makeup, hair extensions and colors, and perfumes. We have multiple coats, shoes, and outfits for for every occasion. We are rich.

Thankfully most of us do not worship our possessions. None of us is entirely out to just serve ourselves. However, I do feel hints of the rich man in myself, blind to the plight of others. For instance, wondering if every homeless person is on drugs or alcohol, while looking right past the beer in my own refrigerator, judging people for having their child in plastic diapers or smoking cigarettes, when I indulge in many vices that are also expensive, and I had access to laundry facilities and money to buy cloth diapers when my child was in diapers. I don't stop to talk to homeless people in my neighborhood to find out what I could do to help. I don't invite hungry people to my table to share my food. I don't even use the food in my cupboard as well as I could. Plenty gets wasted. While I am not entirely self-serving and blind, I am both of these things to a certain extent. I am rich and in some ways I am indifferent and blind to the plight of others.

Whether you are rich or poor, there is one thing you cannot escape, and that is death. In death, it turns out the rich man is actually poor. He is thirsty. He is in torment and agony. I'm not a big believer in the flames of hell. This story isn't trying to accurately describe the afterlife to us. It is about the chasms in our lives and the ways we are blind to each other. Maybe he is tormented by guilt. Maybe his torment is fear for his brother's lives. In any case, the one who was comfortable is no longer, and the one who was in agony is now at peace. The one who thought he was rich, is actually poor, and the one who was materially poor, is rich in God's love and grace. This part about hell adds an urgency to the story. It is telling us that we have a limited time to work this out. We can't put it off forever, opening our eyes and waking up to the suffering around us.

The rich man was blind. He never saw Lazarus there in front of his house. Or did he? When he needed something from him, then we find out he even knows his name. “Tell Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” He knew Lazarus' name, but he had ignored him until he needed something from him. The rich man continued the way he always had. Even after death, he was still so self-centered. He could only see Lazarus as his servant, there to bring him water. 

The one who really did see Lazarus, was the dog. The dog didn't walk past Lazarus. This is the thing we can learn from dogs, and that is not to discriminate or show favoritism. They don't care about fancy clothes or food or houses or oils or couches, or any of that. They are simply loyal. So if you want to ask who is Jesus in this story, he might just be the dog, noticing the person in need, licking the wounds, bringing healing.

We are a little bit the rich man, and a little bit Lazarus, but probably most of all, we are the brothers. We have more than our basic needs. We live pretty lavish lives. We are somewhat blind to those around us. But this isn't all that life can be. This isn't the life that really is life. So our eyes are being opened, the chasm is shrinking. The scriptures are showing us what really is life. The describe people tempted by money and charmed into thinking that things could satisfy them, whose entire focus was on themselves, but who were ultimately unhappy. This Gospel reading shows us what it takes to live a contented life.

In the NPR series on the American dream, I heard a young woman who immigrated to the US when she was a child talk about her mother's dreams for a new life that she was trying to give her daughter. Now her daughter works as a lawyer for refugees. The reason she does this is not a big salary or importance, but because her view of the American dream is no longer the big house and car and riches, it is that everyone would have enough food and shelter and clothing, and experience justice. Her dream isn't that far from God's dream. 

Jesus is trying to hand us a free gift of life, life that really is life. We feel a need, a chasm that we try to fill with things. Jesus is crossing that chasm, closing the gap between heaven and earth, closing the gap between people, showing us that what will fill our need, is relationship and love. When we know our brother or sister in need, when we do not judge others based on their clothes or house or car, when we recognize our need of healing and our own true riches and share them, we do find satisfaction.

Let us open our eyes to the person on the freeway offramp holding a sign. Let us open our eyes to the person gathering bottles and cans from our curbside recycling. Let us open our eyes to the children in our church and neighborhood. Let us open our eyes to the Syrian refugees all over the world. Let us open our eyes to the homebound person with no one to visit. Let us open our eyes to this wounded earth, covered with wounds from our abuse. Let us open our eyes to each other, acknowledging the wounds we all share when even one is suffering. Let us open our eyes to Jesus in our midst.

Jesus is the one who is truly rich, possessing everything, yet giving it all up to come and be among us, who are blind and clueless and covered with sores, the ugliness of what we do to ourselves and others. He knows what really matters, and that is that we are all brothers and sisters helping each other and having compassion for each other. So he gave himself that we might have abundant life in this one and the next. Receive this free gift of life that really is life.

Monday, September 19, 2016

September 18, 2016

Gospel: Luke 16, 1-13 
1st Reading: Amos 8:4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

A friend once told me, when I said we're only having one child, “There are just some things that siblings can only tell each other.” That doesn't really convince me, since there have been many only children that have been a-ok. Any family configuration has it's own positives and negatives.  I've seen my nephews learning from each other how to work things out.  Sometimes it is by wrestling.  Sometimes it is by wits.  My child is missing out on that daily experience.  I had this thought from the beginning that I would let my son work out his differences with other kids, and not step in every time to help him or to make him behave. However, I soon realized that doesn't work in a lot of cases because my son is usually in a position of power. He is male. He is white. He is big for his age. He communicates pretty well. So in many situations the other kids defer to him. He has the power. I get to help him become aware of his power and use his power well. I tell him, “You're bigger than he is,” or “Watch out for the babies!” The other day he came home and said, “Mom, there's a baby at preschool who doesn't cover her mouth when she coughs.” He was disgusted. I had to tell him, “You didn't always know how to do that. Have patience with her. Maybe you could help teach the baby how to cover her mouth.” He was delighted to think that he could help.

Today's Gospel reading is about a lot of things, but today today I want to focus on power. This is one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told, and Luke doesn't really explain very well what Jesus meant. So then after the parable it looks like several authors tacked on a bunch of other sayings or explanations, including “You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

Another difficulty comes with translation. The word for wealth here is “dishonest wealth.” “You can't serve God and dishonest wealth.” 

Then there is the contradiction that the master commended the dishonest manager and later when the Gospel reads “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

Some have said that the manager was caught between the land owner and the debtors, with the landowner always wondering if the manager was doing a good job and the debtors always resentful that the manager was squeezing every last penny out of them. So when the manager lost his job, he had to think of something to help himself. He slashed the debt, so he would at least have some friends among the debtors. The debtors all threw him a party. So when the landowner showed up, everyone was thanking the landowner for his generosity, as well and suddenly everyone loved the rich landowner, too. So rather than get mad or heap the debt back on, the landowner just thanked the steward. He was so rich that he wouldn't even miss that money the manager slashed. Maybe the rich man learned that friendship and relationships are more important than money and eeking out every little drop he could get from those debtors.

The reading becomes slightly more clear when placed in context, surprise, surprise! If you don't understand something from the Bible, it can often be helpful to read what comes before it and what comes after it. Just before this reading is the story of another person who squandered or wasted his property, and that is the prodigal son. In the story of the Prodigal Son, though, the father is waiting with open arms for his son to return home and forgives him and throws him a party. 

In this parable, today, the rich man is waiting in judgment over his steward. He doesn't even let him defend himself. He's already made up his mind that his steward is guilty.

Jesus is telling both of these stories in the midst of the Disciples and Scribes and Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners. He tells them to the Disciples. They are close to Jesus. They have power because of that, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes they are able to heal people or cast out demons. Sometimes they just want to make sure their special relationship, their power in relationship to Jesus gets them a front row seat in the heavenly kingdom. Jesus is giving them two examples of how power can be used.

He's telling the Pharisees and Scribes who also have power and need to use it well. He's telling it to the tax collectors because they are often like the steward or manager, stuck in the middle. He's encouraging them to be creative in their response and he's telling them that relationships are more important than money. And he's talking to the sinners, because they are the debtors and their debt is getting slashed. God cares about them. God treasures them and finds value in them, as we learned last week. God is forgiving.

We are powerful. On the one hand we can use our power to forgive and welcome and celebrate. On the other hand we can use our power to judge and condemn. Some of that power is financial. Many of us have enough money to be pretty comfortable. Some of it is our skin color. Most of us can drive down the street without getting stopped by the police. We can get approval for our loan applications. We can get an Uber driver or an Air BNB. We don't realize the roadblocks that people with darker skin experience. Sometimes it's our gender. Sometimes it is our profession. Sometimes it's our height or language. We are powerful. We are privileged.

Now God is asking us—how will we use our power? How we use our power might partly depend on how we see God. Some see God as a stern judge. Others see God as a forgiving parent. Will we use our power to welcome and share that power, to look foolish and undignified, throwing a party and sharing our wealth and power, giving people second chances, not hiding our enthusiasm to be in relationship with them? Or will we use our power like this rich man, judging people, just trying to earn more money for himself, firing people and making their lives miserable, taking advantage of his debtors, the poor who are working the land?

Of course we do both. These days we can trample on the needy and never know it. We don't know the working conditions of the people who make our clothes. We try to buy things made in America, however many of us don't realize that most manufacturing in the US is prison labor, in effect, slave labor, for people who don't make but a pittance for that work. We don't know where much our food comes from, what forests were cut down to grow it, who harvests it, or what the crop or fertilizer or pesticides do to the soil or the economy. One woman who shops for Backpack Buddies was saying that she started shopping at Walmart, because the lower prices meant she could serve 30% more kids. However, those kids might as well be the same kids who are receive the Backpack Buddies food each weekend, children of people who work at places like Walmart and can't make a living wage. 

We can pollute the earth and never know our personal part in it. We can drive past a person who is in desperate need and never see our own responsibility. We are blind to our own part, our own sin.

On the other hand we are faithful. We volunteer. We are generous. We are kind. We forgive. We welcome.

Now sometimes we are not in such a position of power. I have seen people treat seniors like little children. I have heard doctors talk about their patients as if they are not there in the room. We get ill. We lose our job. We have to give up most of our possessions and go into assisted living. Our driver's license gets revoked. We feel powerless to help our grown child who suffers from domestic violence, or alcoholism, or mental illness. There are plenty of times we are in the chair of the steward, losing our power or in the shoes of the debtors, powerless to do anything to help ourselves.

This story urges us to be creative. The manager could have told his boss to “Take this job and shove it!” He could have told him all the things that were wrong with him and his business. But he didn't burn that bridge. He asked himself what he would need going forward. He would need friends. What would be a way to make friends and make his boss look good? Cancel some debts. What power did he have and how could he use it to help himself and others?

We don't know what ultimately happens to this steward, just as we don't ultimately know what happens to the prodigal son. But they are both practical, eventually, and they both get commended. For them, the money was no longer there, the power was no longer there. That is true for all of us. No matter how powerful we are, we all face powerlessness. However, there are some kinds of power that last longer than others. Money is pretty short-lived and not very flexible. There are certain things you can't buy, such as true friendship. However, there are other kinds of power, such as the power of creativity that can help change a powerless situation into one of strength, and the power of relationships that can get us through hard times. The most powerful forces are not money or possessions. They are the power of love, the power of compassion, the power of relationship.

My son doesn't know anything about money yet. But I'm trying to teach him about power. Some of that is through my own example, how I treat him and try to involve him in decisions, and let him have a say. Some of that is helping him to understand how much power he has, how big he is, how loud he is, how expressive he is. Some of that is helping him to understand where the other person is coming from, that they have feelings just as strong as his. And some is helping him to understand the options and consequences of each action.

We were at Westmoreland park on Monday with some friends. Sterling was standing in the midst of someone's project with water and sand. The kids were older, taller, expressive, powerful. I let the situation play out. I didn't try to rescue him. I let him face the consequences. Thankfully the kids had been taught compassion. One tried yelling at him, which didn't phase him a bit. The oldest talked calmly and patiently, repeatedly explaining that he was standing on their dam and would he please move. After the 5th or 6th time he heard, he got it, and calmly moved away. If I had intervened, I probably would have embarrassed him and he wouldn't have been able to learn a thing. Instead he figured some things out for himself, practiced listening, responded in a way that showed he cared about what someone else cared about. That's what God wants for us, to guide us into life-giving relationships of compassion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September 11, 2016

(I used an outline this week.  Hopefully it won't be difficult to follow.)

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10 
1st Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Share a story about something you've lost
Share a story about something you've found

We are undignified when we are looking for something/desperate
God looks undignified in this Gosepl reading
Not to have all the answers
Not to have others to do that for him
Looking through the vacuum bag for the diamond from my wedding ring
God not here to be dignified
otherwise God wouldn't
beg for us back
change God's mind
come as a baby
become our friend
get arrested
hang naked on the cross
Instead God came to be with us in relationship
Dignified is distant, separate, better
Our job is also not to be dignified
Instead we can be in relationship, care, compassion

Normally I don't care if I lose a penny.
I can eventually get over the loss of a pet, although I've never had a sheep
But we all understand the desperation when it is a child who gets lost
That's what God is looking for, a family member
We each have value to God and God knows the community is stronger when the lost are brought back

We are lost
lost in our search for dignity
We won't ask directions
We don't want our name called across the PA
However, God finds us and brings us home
back to the fold
it sure feels good, wholeness, shalom

We get to let go of dignity and start building relationships
Be vulnerable
be open to searching, looking desperate, because we all need each other desperately

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

August 14, 2016

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29
2nd Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2

This is the first year I've looked forward to preaching on this Gospel reading. I feel pretty passionate about it and this is why.  Sometimes we think we come to church because it is comfortable. In an age where we have cars that can get us easily to any one of a hundred churches, we have choice. We decide where to go to church and where to stay often based on where we fit in and where we are comfortable. 

However, Jesus came to change us, not to make us feel more peaceful in the short term, and this is one of those Gospel readings that lays this out most clearly. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 

I've heard pastors say that if they don't stir up controversy in their sermon, they haven't done their job. They haven't truly preached the word of God, if people aren't challenged, even to the point of being offended. This hits awfully close to home, or rather the pocket book, for me and a lot of pastors. You've called me here to be your pastor. This congregation pays my salary. So I sometimes find myself torn about how much to challenge you. It isn't entirely conscious, but I do sometimes wonder who I work for. Do I work for God, preaching God's word, pointing out the difficult truths that need to be faced? Or do I work for all of you, whose offerings go to keeping me fed and clothed and roof over my head and paying my insurance and giving me what I need to live? Most of the time I hold the two together, and like a lot of “mysteries” in the Lutheran church, it seems to be a little of both.

The Disciples, too, are wondering who they work for. They have been following Jesus around for a few years in this reading. Jesus has been dropping little hints about the difficulty ahead, that he will die and the disciples will suffer, and called to take up their crosses, too. He is trying to tell them the truth about where they are headed, and they decide maybe this isn't such a good gig after all, that they should head back to Galilee where they can be safe. They have a choice, much like I do: Follow the path of Jesus which is difficult, to say the least, or follow the path of safety and comfort.

I don't want to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. I want to challenge people in a way that gets them talking, that makes them think. I have felt ashamed that I more readily posted a message stating “Pokemon Go, Welcome Here” on our church sign than one that says, “Black Lives Matter.” What would it take to post a sign like that? Would we have a congregational forum first? What signs merit a congregational check in and which can be posted without people threatening to leave? How many people threatening to leave would mean that we change our message? How can we take time to have the discussion when lives are being lost every day because our society sends the message that some lives don't matter very much? On the other hand, how can we rush to post a sign that may not be where our hearts really are? How can we rush a conversation, a conversion of hearts, for an issue that has been going on in our country for hundreds of years? How can we honor and celebrate what we do not know, as a congregation that includes exactly 0 black people? I wish I knew the answer. I am still struggling and I know Jesus calls me to struggle and wrestle.

My dilemma as a pastor is not so different from my dilemma as a regular person, or yours. How do we stand up for what is right, when it is unpopular or causes divisions? How do we stand up in a way that is loving rather than condemning and alienating? How do we build relationships and community in a way that can withstand controversy? And I suppose there is some temptation that we know what is right in the first place, in that we make ourselves right and others wrong.

Let's start with the question, how do we know what's right in God's eyes. I try to use the “loving” test. God is love. So I ask myself, what about this is loving and compassionate? Is this only loving toward those who can give something back to me in return? If so, that may not pass the test. Is this loving toward someone who is hard to love, who is especially vulnerable, or who I might ordinarily ignore or dismiss? If so, it might be the kind of loving action Jesus' urges us toward, called justice. 

In the reading from Jeremiah, this morning, God is nearby, rather than far away. Near to those who are suffering or trapped, near to all those who hunger or who are in need. When we stand up for what is right, it isn't what benefits me, but it is what benefits those people most in need, most trapped, who are suffering with no one to care for them. That is one way to know whether we are following God, or making an idol of ourselves.

How do we build a community that can withstand controversy? Practice, practice, practice. First practice authentic relationships. Get to know each other on a deeper level. Share your thoughts and dreams with each other. Be curious about each other. Those relationships are the glue that keep us together when differences threaten to divide us. Then we practice good communication. When we don't we need to call each other on it, so we can work on it. And we practice respect for one another in the smaller disagreements so when it gets more heated, we can hold on to what is most important, our unity in Christ which transcends any other differences between us.

Fire—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, fire has long been used for cleansing. Field burning in the grass seed capitol of the world was something we endured every year in the Willamette Valley. We sanitize our dishes at this church at 150 degrees. We don't see the fire, because it is hidden in the hot water heater, but fire sanitizes, it cleanses, it kills germs and helps keep us healthy.

Division—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, the word for division here is the same word for when Moses divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could move through to freedom. The dividing of the sea made a safe path for an enslaved people to escape to freedom. That is what God wants for us. At times, we are the Israelites, standing there on the river bank. We've got the Egyptians coming toward us, powers of death and enslavement. We've got the river in front of us, swirling and chaotic. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to step out into that river bed with the water raging on both sides. Of course you do, because you've been there, as widows and widowers, times you've lost your job, times you've spoken out on behalf of others, times you gave generously despite not being quite secure yourselves, times you took a risk to befriend someone who was friendless, you've been there, but never alone. God is in those moments guiding you and helping you toward a more excellent and lasting peace that can only come after a time of uncertainty and risk. 

The Israelites had some measure of peace as slaves. They ate garlic and meat when they were slaves. They knew what was expected of them. They had a place to live. However, God meant them for something greater than that kind of false peace that comes when you lie down and let others walk all over you, or when you don't speak up when someone says something hurtful or cruel. God meant us all for freedom. But getting there isn't easy. It isn't just a matter of picking up and going somewhere else. It was a matter of a change of heart that only took place with a long journey and a lot of trust building with God and a lot of community building in that 40 year exodus.

But sometimes we are the water that is standing in the way of God's saving action for the most vulnerable. In that case, God divides us, to get us out of the way so that something wonderful can happen. In that case, it may be painful and scary, but the same outcome—we are not alone, we can learn from these experiences, our faith can grow through these experiences, we can grow closer to God, we can realize what really matters, we can grow closer in community.

Change—God wants to change us. We're very comfortable. We have what we need. We benefit from this system of oppression that we live in. However it is a false kind of peace. What keeps this tenuous, false, short-term view kind of peace, enslaves our brothers and sisters and if we are honest about it, enslaves us.

There are just some things that are not going to be tolerated in the Kingdom of God, a lot of things we like and keep us comfortable. Consumerism, that some of us have way more than we need while others go without, racism, strip-mining, deforestation, pollution, greed and waste. We call this sin, and it is part of everything we do, we live in a state of sin. If I start I can get all mired in it, I'll never be able to let it go. Getting here this morning, burning fossil fuels, using hot water to bathe, eating food with 30 ingredients, not focussed on God or with a grateful heart, not enjoying the scenery, haven't made my homebound visits, dreaming of vacation, one foot out the door. I'm the hypocrite!

Jesus, here, is focussed. He's on his way to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die because he made so many people so uncomfortable, because he condemns it when our comforts mean that someone else's life is diminished. He asks us to open our eyes and see what we're doing to ourselves, what the price is for seeking short-term peace, instead of taking the longer view and doing the hard work for something that is real and beautiful. 

The fire prepares us, by cleansing us. The division prepares a way, in between, to lead all people to freedom and life. It is painful, but it is good. Make way for the Kingdom of God! Jesus is making his home among us so that we will all have lasting peace and love for all time.